September 28, 2009

In Which Jeda Speaks of Stepmothers

April 26, 1162

Though she was too polite to voice the thought, Jeda's opinion of Queen Laralita was precisely the same as her opinion of perfume--pretty, elegant, and above all, best absorbed in small quantities. While she was pleasant enough, after a few minutes, she seemed to become simply too much. Too much of what, exactly, Jeda couldn't say; just too much.

And already today, Jeda had experienced far too much of the her. It seemed that Queen Laralita--delighted at the prospect of having the same girl as a future stepdaughter-in-law, a first cousin, once removed, and a stepniece by marriage--had decided that she did not particularly care to talk to anyone else before the ceremony began. Though flattered, it hadn't been long before Jeda had grown desperate for some space; she vaguely wondered how Ietrin, Leara, and Camaline managed to live with her.

She had managed to get away by telling the queen that she wanted to give her father a quick hug before he headed to the chapel, but she realized that it was only a matter of time before her absence would grow to a little long for that--then, the queen would start looking for her.

If that was the case, then maybe she wasn't exactly well-served in sitting around--she could either run or hide.

And where better to hide than her father's study? People only came to the study when they wanted to speak with her father, and today, everyone knew he wouldn't be there--it was his wedding day, after all. No one would even think to go into that particular room, and certainly not to look for her.

But she was wrong; not only would someone think to go into the study, but someone had. And not just any someone--a very beautiful, very important someone wearing a white gown and flowers in her hair.

"Holladrin?" Jeda addressed the bride as she pushed herself from her lazing position. "What are you doing in here? Are you all right?"

Holladrin laughed. "I'm not getting cold feet, if that's what you're thinking--I'm just hiding from the queen. I'm glad that my brother is happy with her, and I do think she is a good person, but sometimes she can be a little..."

"...too much?" Jeda finished for her.

The princess nodded. "Exactly. Oh, but don't tell her I said that," she pleaded softly.

"I won't if you don't tell her I said it."

She giggled prettily. "Fair enough."

What a fine thing it was, to have a princess for a stepmother! True, Holladrin was not quite her stepmother yet, but after the ceremony, she would be. And not only was she a princess, but she was the nicest, loveliest, and most fun princess there was--and of all the men she could have married, all the men who would have gladly taken her as a bride, she had chosen Jeda's own father! She almost couldn't believe her luck--perhaps it was magic.

"Do they need me down there soon?" she asked with a smile, her blue eyes flickering to the glint of light streaming from the window.

"Lady Alina said about fifteen minutes," answered Jeda eagerly; she wondered how Holladrin could contain her excitement so well. Perhaps it was because she was a princess--perhaps Jeda too would be capable of such poise when she became a princess. "Oh, Holladrin! You're going to be my stepmother!"

"I promise I won't be a wicked one," she teased.

Jeda shook her head. "Oh no, I don't think you'll be a wicked stepmother at all. Only girls who had good, loving mothers get wicked stepmothers, and I never had a mother, so I know you'll be a nice stepmother."

It seemed that Holladrin had no reply. Perhaps she was running through the old fairy tales in her head, just to make sure that Jeda was right--which, as a five-year-old girl, she would have been.

"Perhaps we should go to the chapel now, Jeda," she said at last; she must have found no proof that Jeda was wrong. "I know we have a bit of time, but I don't want to keep the queen and the duchess and Lady Alina waiting if I can help it. Perhaps you would like to see the flowers?"

Jeda felt herself beaming. She hadn't been to a wedding since the king and queen's, and that had been when she was a little girl; there were so many wonderful things about weddings she didn't know about! "Yes! Holladrin, I'm glad you're going to be my stepmother."

"I'm glad I am too, Jeda," Holladrin assured her with an embrace. "Now, let's go and see the flowers, before your father can catch a glimpse of me--you'll recall that it's bad luck for a groom to see his bride before the wedding."

NEXT CHAPTER:

September 24, 2009

In Which Severin Escapes Twice

March 14, 1162

As little as a year ago, Severin would not have been able to imagine any situation in which he would have willingly journeyed throughout far-off Dovia all alone for weeks on end, but news of a princess's upcoming wedding was not of the sort to be delivered by a messenger, or so Roderick had felt. At first, Roderick had asked Octavius, but this was rather out of the question seeing as it was Octavius's wedding as well. He had then asked Dalston, but he had refused on account of some stupid excuse that Severin was sure was only a cover for not wanting to leave Celina's side.

Roderick hadn't asked Severin, however; Severin had volunteered.

While they still got along just as they always had during the day, there had definitely been a marked change in the nighttime aspects of his relationship with Alina. Many nights, he would go to their bedchamber to find her already in her nightgown, curled up under the covers, sound asleep--or, perhaps on some nights, pretending to be fast asleep. He didn't quite understand; was this whole coitus interruptus business really so unbearable? It took some getting used to, but it was better than nothing, was it not?

Regardless, the lack of sex was taking its toll and he had found himself growing more and more irritable of late, and after one particularly nasty episode with Roderick's steward, Severin had felt that it was time to take drastic measures. While he was reluctant to leave his princess and their children, perhaps he was giving her the space she needed--and perhaps he would return to find her fires rekindled.

God, how long had it been? A few months, at least--whatever the count, he hadn't experienced so long a drought since before he had ever experienced fornication itself.

Frustrated, he hastily shifted his mind to other matters. He was now at his father's castle, though his father and older brother had both been out all day. He had arrived in the late evening and passed the news of Holladrin's approaching marriage to Viridis, then proceeded to have a pleasant, yet mildly awkward visit with her and his twin siblings--his four-year-old twin siblings. He had a son who was four years old--hell, he had a son who was five years old, and a daughter who was six. While they seemed to be fine children, he had difficulty believing that he--he who would be turning thirty near the end of the year, for God's sake--shared a parent with a pair who were scarcely more than babies. Likewise, he harbored such feelings also toward his mother's daughter... but in the end, he could not bring himself to mention this to anyone. It wasn't as if it could be the children's faults.

Speaking of children, he had been disappointed with Viridis's unwillingness to divulge any information about the wedding of her niece Riona and young Lord Felonis back in February. Their betrothal, of course, had been common knowledge among the nobility for years, but even with Primus's passing, no one had expected the pair to be wed so soon, nor so hastily and privately. It also seemed that Riona's twin brother Searle was to be knighted and married as soon as May--at all of fifteen. After Lileina's marriage at thirteen, Haldred had established himself as a man who was hasty to marry off his children, but after that wedding, Severin--and likely everyone else--had braced himself for similar affairs to that particular event, none of this sneaking about at the chapels with only the immediate family present. The whole ordeal, Severin found, seemed somewhat suspicious.

"What are you doing here?"

He pulled himself upwards and cast a sidelong glance over his shoulder to see his brother, Rudolphus, standing in the doorway, a small girl in his arms.

"Is Father with you?" Severin inquired in undertone, straining slightly to peer around his brother and down the corridor.

"Hasn't been all day," answered Rudolphus blandly, stepping further into the room. "I was out hunting with Ovrean and Tarien; Father claimed he was riding out to the tithe barns, but I'm sure he found a brothel on the way and another on the way back. But you didn't answer my question, brat--why are you here?"

Severin closed his eyes. "I came to deliver a message."

"Then deliver it," his brother urged him.

"I already told your mother."

"So? She's in bed already, so she wouldn't be able to tell me until morning--and now you've piqued my curiosity."

"Fair enough," Severin relented, rising from the couch. "Holladrin is getting married next month."

His brother frowned--Severin suspected that Rudolphus himself would have rather married Holladrin than Eudocia, and in the end, he didn't particularly blame him. "To whom?"

"Octavius."

Rudolphus snorted. "The eighth son of a lord? For a princess?"

"He's a baron in Naroni," muttered Severin, rolling his eyes.

"A baron in Naroni," repeated Rudolphus snidely. "Sounds to be the equivalent of a gentleman here... mind, he does outrank you, your lordship."

"God, you sound just like my sister-in-law," groaned Severin, shuddering at the thought of Laralita. "Anyway... I thought your daughter was three; this little girl looks quite a bit younger."

As he lowered the child to the ground, Rudolphus chuckled slightly. "My daughter is three--and unlike this little one, she actually sleeps through the night. No... this is the next you."

Severin raised an eyebrow. "You mean...?"

"Indeed. Duke Lonriad of Luperia--always taking in a bastard for his wife to coddle even more than she does her true children. I'd thought that perhaps Sidwein and Taimyra would have been spared my fate, but I suppose that was too much to hope for."

Rocking slightly in his discomfort, Severin was quick to change the subject. "Does the fact that Father is still turning them out inspire you to maybe start working on a few more of your own? The steward has been telling people that you're having some... difficulties."

Rudolphus chuckled as he returned to eye level. "Difficulties my ass--he's just jealous because half his children look like me."

"Well, I hate to sound like some stuck-up old status-seeker, but you're going to need to produce an heir, at the very least," Severin reminded him.

"As soon as we have enough wine in the cellar to make me consider sleeping with my wife, I will get straight to that. God, if only she looked more like her sister--she was here, you know, for quite some time, and I made sure to get my helping, even if Father took the lion's share."

Well, that was certainly shocking.

"Geneva?" Severin demanded in outrage; Celina had told him that she was still alive, but he would have hoped she'd had the sense to stay away from Roderick's relatives. "When was this?"

"Sporadically throughout last year, and a little while before," replied his brother, nodding toward the little girl on the floor. "Where do you think she came from?"

"Well, I've come to expect that sort of thing from him," he sneered, "but you? You and Roderick were always so close--how could you do that to him?"

Rudolphus shrugged. "As far as Roderick is concerned, Laralita is the only wife he has presently."

"Yes, but you know otherwise."

"Well, a man's got to have his fun, doesn't he?" demanded Rudolphus, placing his hands firmly on his hips. "Perhaps if you hadn't stolen my intended and left me for the most unsightly bitch in the kingdom, I wouldn't be looking for love outside my own bed."

"Don't try to blame your behavior on me!" Severin hissed, reducing to gnawing on the lining of his cheek to keep himself from shouting and waking the household.

"Why not? It isn't as if you're any better!"

He had certainly not expected to hear that.

"Excuse me?" he choked, caught completely off-guard.

"Oh, don't think for a second that anyone believes you went to your wedding bed a virgin," chided Rudolphus. "Frankly, I'm shocked to find that you thought I wasn't aware of your... youthful misadventures, shall we say? We older brothers have our ways, you know. You were long gone before they even sent you off to that monastery--and even there, I know you got to know some of the female servants in the biblical sense, correct? I wager you were the only man there who knew their sins before they confessed."

Severin sighed. "That was a long time ago. I was young, and--"

Rudolphus let out a soft laugh. "Oh, relax, Severin--I'm not judging you. I'm just saying that if you weren't married to the love of your life, you wouldn't have any right to berate me for not staying faithful to my own wife."

"Rudolphus..."

"I just don't want you thinking you're any different," his brother continued despite his protest. "It's in our blood, brother. Deep down, I know you're just like me; just like Fa--"

"I am not like you!" he snapped at last; this was the one thing he would not tolerate hearing. "I'm not like you, and I'm certainly not like him!"

Rudolphus sniffed impatiently. "Severin..."

"I'm not, and don't forget it for a moment!" he pressed once more.

"You're in denial," his brother declared.

"Shut up! There's nothing to deny!"

Rudolphus snorted. "Oh, I'm so sure about--"

"What the hell's going on in here?"

Startled, Severin turned around to see his father standing in the doorway, looking rather worse for the wear.

"Severin?" the older man addressed him. "This certainly is a surprise."

"Apparently Holladrin's marrying Octavius," muttered Rudolphus under his breath--Lonriad, however, paid him no heed.

"Everything all right back in Naroni, son?" he asked, concerned. "Anything I should know?"

Trying to calm himself somewhat, Severin strode away from Rudolphus and his new sister, toward his father. "Actually... I was just leaving."

Almost immediately, his father's face fell. "Oh, but you'll at least stay the night? It's rather chilly out there, you realize."

Severin shrugged. "I'll survive."

"But it's well past midnight," Lonriad protested. "Surely--"

As he crossed paths with his father, Severin looked him in the eye and nodded. "I know--surely I'll have to make up for a few lost hours."

And with that, he brushed past Lonriad and made his escape from the room.

NEXT CHAPTER:

September 23, 2009

In Which Holladrin Debates the Greatest Tragedy of All

February 19, 1162

The stained glass windowpanes had been repaired quickly, but it was so fine a job that one would have never believed it had been done in so little time had they not seen its previous sate shortly before the repairs had begun. Holladrin, however, had seen the window in its broken state, so she could be certain that it had indeed been broken beforehand; her difficulty was in accepting the fact that her own, formerly impeccable cousin had been the one to break it.

It was common knowledge that Medea's mother had lost her mind well before she died. Though Holladrin knew this, she had not yet been born when the countess had died, and therefore had never witnessed her decline firsthand. Roderick, however, had some recollection of her, and he had sworn to her that she had not gone nearly so insane as Medea. Perhaps--though she felt positively horrible for even considering the thought--it had been for the best that she had died giving birth to Cambrin. Had she lingered for longer, she may have ended up just like her daughter; reduced to bare animalism, instinctively tearing herself from her cage in whatever physically possible way, even if it meant a fall to her death.

Someone knocked on the door. "Who is it?" she inquired softly, praying it was neither Sparron nor Jeda; neither of them needed to see their mother's final prison.

"It's just me," replied Octavius--to her great relief. "Do you mind if I come in?"

She knew that he could not see her, but she shook her head regardless. "Please, do."

Behind her, the door creaked open, his footsteps drawing nearer; in this macabre chamber, his presence was oddly calming. "I'm sorry about your cousin," he told her grimly.

I'm sorry about your cousin. A pity, truly; it should have been she telling him that she was sorry about his wife. Unfortunately, Medea had never truly been such in more than name alone.

"It's probably for the best," sighed Holladrin. "I'm sorry that I made you move her, however; I thought she would be safer here than in that dungeon. Tragically ironic, really."

"No one would have guessed that she would have done such a thing," he tried to reassure her.

Though not entirely convinced, Holladrin turned to face him. "I suppose you're right. Now, what did Vulcran have to say?"

One of the sons of the Count of Valcria had arrived that morning, evidently with some news from Dovia for all the noble families. As she had spent the day with Octavius's children, and had then retreated to Medea's room, Holladrin had not yet heard it.

"His niece Riona was married my nephew Nythran on the ninth," Octavius explained. "It was a private ceremony, as per the wishes of her father. She is now Lady Felonis."

Holladrin raised an eyebrow. "Haldred's daughter? Isn't she only fourteen?"

Octavius shrugged. "Her sister married at thirteen."

That was true. Alas, marriage was probably not the most sensitive of topics to discuss with Octavius at present, she realized a moment too late. Slowly, she extended her arm and reached for his hand, endowing it with a gentle squeeze. "Sorry. You probably don't want to talk about such things, do you?"

Her fingers briefly brushed against his wedding band; resignedly, they both let go, allowing their hands to fall back to their sides.

"Don't worry about how I feel about all of this," he insisted after a brief moment of silence. "I came to terms with it some time ago."

"I see. Your children seem to be taking it well enough too," she mused aloud.

Sighing, he shook his head. "And perhaps that is the greatest tragedy of all; when I told them that their mother had died, they seemed quite surprised at the fact that they even had one. They never did get to know her, and even before her decline, she was never particularly interested in them."

Holladrin frowned; she could imagine for one second how anyone could be indifferent to two such wonderful children as the twins. "That, Octavius, is the greatest tragedy of all."

Nodding, Octavius took a minute to inhale slowly. Then--

"Sit with me a minute?"

She took him by the hand and allowed herself to be led to the couch by the empty fireplace. They both took a seat, then exchanged a quick glance.

"I'm sorry that you were pulled into the middle of all this, Holladrin," he began. "I hope you understand that I would have never purposely hurt you."

She nodded. "I know, but you didn't hurt me. If anything, I hurt you."

"You couldn't if you tried, I assure you."

Holladrin lightly tapped the frame of the couch with her foot as she shifted her weight back and forth on the cushion. "So... what do we do now?"

Octavius closed his eyes. "I suppose there is nothing left to do but wait."

"It is soon," she agreed.

"Very."

"We shall wait."

"Just... wait."

"Wait..."


NEXT CHAPTER:

September 22, 2009

In Which Geneva Traces Engraved Letters

January 24, 1162

Geneva's travels had taught her there were many different places to bury the dead. Some countries laid their late nobility to rest in underground catacombs; others, outside under the sky, like peasants.

The Dovian custom differed slightly. In Geneva's homeland, the nobles were buried on the ground floor of their castle's chapel, as sermons were held on the upper levels. There were windows in these rooms--five in this particular one, it seemed--allowing the sunlight to enter and the grass to grow around and over top of the graves, a macabre garden of stone walls and stained glass.

Medea, Geneva knew, would have been more at ease with the idea of a catacomb; she had always hated grass and sunshine.

However, she found comfort in the fact that, at the very least, Octavius did visit the grave. The candles were alight, Geneva noted, and indicating a recent guest, and a bouquet of pink roses lay at the foot of the obelisk--pink, her favorite color.

The obelisk itself was a bittersweet relief. Medea had been buried as lady of the castle, as she had always wanted; back in Dovia, she would have only had a simple slab, as the daughter of the Earl of Sarona or the daughter-in-law of Lord Felonis. The word 'baroness' had been inscribed as clearly as any other--not so high as she had ever hoped, but if nothing else, it was better than no title at all.

Sighing, Geneva fell to her knees as she reached the grave, shaking her head as she studied the slab of rock that marked the final bed of her dearest friend. "Maybe you should have come with me after all," she muttered under her breath. "I know you hate traveling, but it would have been better than this. Maybe eventually we could have set up a shop or something somewhere, in Normandy or Flanders or some such place... ah, but you would have hated that too. You were born a patron of castles and finery, and perhaps you did truly die one as well.

"I do get the feeling that this may have been my fault... and if so, then I am truly grieved. You were one of the few things in my life not worth losing, and through my own foolishness, it would seem I lost you anyway. What a cruel ultimatum placed upon us by the games of the aristocracy--my happiness, or yours, but never could both coexist. I hope that you can forgive, as I will never be able to forgive myself."

Taking a quick sniff, just to be sure that they were still fresh and sweet, Geneva placed the flowers she had brought atop of Octavius's, then continued to gaze at the name engraved upon the obelisk, her eyes tracing each letter with a precision she had rarely ever found use for in her life.

"I suppose I shall see you in heaven, my friend," she whispered in resignation. Then, as an afterthought, she added, "Oh, who am I kidding? We shall both be burning in hell--but if that is what it takes to see you again, then so be it."

She wanted to cry, but she would force herself otherwise; Medea had always hated tears.

NEXT CHAPTER:

September 21, 2009

In Which Dalston Is Truly Sorry

January 24, 1162

As Dalston caught sight of the person seated on the couch in his study, all he could feel was the wave of utter relief at the fact that Celina and the children were visiting at Veldora for the day; he did not wish to risk a meeting between any of them and this uninvited guest. He already felt bad enough that he had not been home the last time she had called, in order to prevent her from disturbing his wife.

"Dalston," Geneva greeted him curtly, unusually hesitant to meet his eye; was it possible that she actually did feel somewhat guilty about their past encounter?

"Geneva," he replied in a similar fashion. "I must say, I was quite surprised when Celina informed me that you were actually alive."

She shrugged, as though she deemed the fact that nearly two entire kingdoms believed her dead to be insignificant. "Life is full of surprises."

"Yes, but why are you here?" demanded Dalston while Geneva pulled herself to her feet in order to meet his eye as best she could. Geneva was not the sort of person who preferred to stand when a seat was available--whatever it was that she wanted from him, it appeared that she considered it at least marginally important.

He silently prayed that it wasn't sex.

But those violet eyes held a rare sobriety he had never seen them house before, he realized as she inclined her head. For an instant, she was no longer Queen Geneva of a Thousand Lovers, the woman who had shamed his king and all but destroyed his marriage. As he stared into her troubled gaze, whatever she had become melted away; she was simply his young cousin again, and something was troubling her.

"I've been calling at Tetran for the past few months, at nightfall," she confessed. "I don't wish to disturb Octavius, but it seems that Medea is never in her room, and I find it difficult to believe that she is frequenting his. I confronted the steward a few times, but all he would tell me was where to stick it. I wouldn't dare approach Roderick, since the last thing he needs is my reappearance when he's so content with his other wife, and I realize that Severin and Alina have lost all respect for me, and... well, you already know about Celina. I figured if anyone would tell me what was going on, it would be you."

She was right; in this instance, he was all she had. Perhaps it was a sort of poetic justice--so tragically right that he should be the one to ruin her life, just as she had ruined his--but Dalston was not the poetic sort. No one he knew could make sense of such things, no matter how they applied pretty words or meter or themes, nor had anyone any idea as to right way to tell such news.

"Geneva..." he began awkwardly, biting his tongue in his frenzied search for words. "I'm surprised you haven't heard by now; the people are talking about it, I'm sure. You see... Medea's been dead for a week now."

If only there had been another way to say it--or if there had been, if only he could have found it. She didn't scream or cry or insist that he was lying to her; she merely stared in stunned silence, which to Dalston sounded worse than even the most piercing wails of the most anguished of souls.

"A week?" repeated Geneva at last.

Solemnly, Dalston nodded. "She went quite mad after you left, you see. It started off slowly--little things, like her forgetting to do her hair or walking around in her nightgown, losing her ability to keep names and relations straight--but then it got to the point where she tried to kill Octavius and the twins, so they detained her, and then... well, she went through the window. I don't know if she wanted freedom or death or what; all I know is that I am truly sorry for your loss."

And he was. In the end, Medea had been the only one who loved Geneva, and Geneva had always been the only one who loved Medea. It seemed that now, they were both thoroughly alone, in completely separate worlds.

Without so much as a parting embrace as per her usual physical manner, she brushed right past him on her way to the door. "I imagine she is buried at Tetran?"

"Yes," he answered softly.

Geneva nodded, placing her hand on the doorhandle. "Thank you."

NEXT CHAPTER: